A tiny nation losing its character

The Latvian phenomenon provides food for thought for other small peoples, whose larger neighbors gaze toward their territories, with an eye toward swallowing and assimilating them.

Latvia's Cabinet 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Latvia's Cabinet 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Little by little, the Latvians are losing their distinct character, mostly by their own doing, through passivity and lethargy inexplicable to the outsider, lack of unity and fellowship, and diminished national pride. How similar is Latvia to Israel?
The weather in Riga, capital of Latvia, can be capricious. The temperatures on a typical summer day there are rather high, but the weather can shift quickly. For about an hour, it’s absolutely clear, then suddenly followed by clouds and rain. It’s pleasant to walk the streets, especially in the beautiful old city. Sitting in a coffee house and enjoying delicious cakes, with oldworld taste, is also lovely.
The old city of Riga is a focus primarily for tourists. There, impressive government buildings are concentrated, all 100 years old or more. Almost everything in the old city is based on tourism, including souvenirs of amber, wood, embroidery, necklaces and the like. In the area of the city north of the Freedom Monument, pointing skyward since 1935, signs of Communist rule still stand, a reminder of those negative decades which ended in 1991.
We sit in a coffee house in this section of the city, looking toward the street.
“Tell me,” says my wife, a native of this city, “can you distinguish between the Latvian passers-by and the Russians here?”
One must understand that both the authentic Latvians and the Russians are all inhabitants of independent Latvia. Latvia is a member of the European Union, but refuses to use the shared currency, the Euro, preferring to hold on to its “lat.” One lat is equal to seven or eight Israeli shekels.
It isn’t by chance that this question arises. Behind it lies understandable fear and concern, that Latvia’s appearance, its human landscape, is quickly changing. This Baltic country, which gained its freedom from the oppressive Communist regime only 21 years ago, hasn’t managed to realize its renewed freedom, its economic potential, hasn’t succeeded in lifting off and becoming a European country in every sense of the word, an organic part of the European Union.
Weary Latvia cannot resist the harsh demographic process taking place within it, and is slowly returning to the bosom of the Russian bear. Latvia is, once again, under occupation – this time the occupation of masses of Russians streaming toward it, visiting, acquiring property and gradually altering its unique character, in order to turn it, in essence, once again into a restored Russian republic.
Not only in the language of the passers-by, half of whom speak Russian, but also in the behavioral style of those sitting in the coffee houses, the difference in culture and mentality is recognizable between Latvians and Russians. The Latvian refinement, compared to the Russian brusqueness, the elegant dress of the Latvians compared to the “cheap” Russian style, the Latvian reserve and civility compared to the Russian garrulousness. These are all becoming mixed, one with the other.
In front of a luxurious hotel with a revolving door, a Russian family acts rudely – father, mother and a few children – hanging on the door and shouting. The polite receptionists don’t dare to comment or request that the parents or children stop doing it. Here is a demonstration of Latvian passivity in the face of the “appropriation,” in simple terms, of their small country, by Russia and the Russians, by Russian culture and language. For some reason, Latvians accept, like a decree from heaven, that the loss of the original character of their land is unavoidable.
IT MUST be said that young Latvians are contributing their part to this fast-paced transformation. They are leaving their country, searching for their livelihood and future in the West, indifferent to the reversals affecting their homeland. When they return – if they do – it is doubtful they will recognize the place. Their friends who haven’t left understand that knowledge of Russian is desirable in daily life in their country.
Already today, approximately half of Latvia’s population consists of Russian-speaking Russians. They came in order to acquire real estate and other property, and to feel like masters in all respects. Many were sent to settle in Latvia – at the initiative of the Soviet regime – when Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union. But many have arrived since the dissolution of the Communist empire and declaration of Latvian independence, in order to exploit the administrative frailty of the attractive republic.
Their presence is felt almost everywhere, and it won’t be long before they will constitute the majority population in the Baltic country. They already behave arrogantly, verging on lord-like. Jurmala, the well-known vacation town next to Riga, is a Russian settlement in the full sense of the word. Russia has purchased almost all of the summer houses there.
The radar speed detection systems set up for the better part of the year on the highway from majestic Riga are concealed during the summer months – just in time for the influx of Russian oligarchs to Jurmala, arriving to vacation and enjoy the Baltic shore and the flashy clubs there. Even these are signs of the surrender to foreign money and the ambivalence toward their imperialistic neighbor to the east.
At present, the parliament in Riga has postponed the experiment to make Russian the second official language in Latvia, but for how long? As said, the Latvians are gradually losing their unique character, mainly by their own design, by passivity and lethargy inexplicable to the outsider, lack of unity and fellowship, and diminished national pride.
A Latvian doctor with whom I met summed up the essence of his country and people when he lamented, “already this isn’t our same Latvia, it’s a different Latvia, a Latvia that has lost its pride, its identity. My Latvia is lost. Latvia is no longer willing to do anything in the face of the Russian flood.”
AS JEWS, we have mixed feelings toward the Latvian people, who, as is known, cooperated with their German invaders in WWII in murdering the Jewish people, and who today cultivate the Rumbula and Bikernieki death sites for Jewish tourism, in which tens of thousands were killed. On the other hand, in some ways, Latvia resembles Israel, as two tiny nation states where foreign peoples threaten their identity, and in both of which the percentage of minorities from those very same peoples rises from year to year.
In Latvia, as stated, the process of Russification is worse, to the point of the dissolution of the Latvian people, its language, culture and heritage, a danger that only national reawakening will postpone. Needless to say, the Latvian phenomenon provides food for thought for other small peoples, whose larger neighbors gaze toward their territories, with an eye toward swallowing and assimilating them.
The writer is a former member of the Knesset and director-general of the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel.